Whatcha Reading, Levi Stahl?

Every week we ask an interesting figure what they're digging into. Have ideas who we should reach out to? Let it fly: info@seattlereviewofbooks.com. Want to read more? Check out the archives.

Levi Stahl is associate marketing director at the University of Chicago Press, where he's worked since 1999. He is also the editor of The Getaway Car: A Donald E. Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany. He's a great follow on Twitter, where he often posts passages that catch his eye, from whatever he's reading. This complete delight stands out, on a website full of so much undelight.

What are you reading now?

Stephen King's The Outsider. I will confess to being unsound on the topic of King: he was too important a part of my early teen reading life for me to ever be able to make a fully rational, objective assessment. I can see the flaws: his prose, especially in recent years, can be too casual; his humor almost all falls flat (he has what I tend to think of as a Boomer belief that irreverence is interesting and funny on its face); he seems never to have had the benefit of a skilled editor who could help him tighten his work. But when the books work (such as, off the top of my head, The Stand, Night Shift, The Shining, It, Pet Sematary, Lisey's Story), they lock in and pull you along with an incredible narrative power, combining an urgent desire to simply find out what happens next with an equally strong desire to see the characters come through it somehow. And if you're reading the right book late at night, he can still legit terrify you.

All of which is preamble to: after a few books that I felt were misfires, The Outsider, 200 pages in, is a remarkable return to the heights. It could all fall apart in the last two-thirds, but, lord, right now I am having trouble not scrapping my workday and going back to it.

What did you read last?

Adrian Bell's The Cherry Tree. First published in 1932 and republished recently by Slightly Foxed, a small UK-based publisher that specializes in what I call (with no intention of disparagement) minor English memoirs, in beautiful little cloth-bound limited editions, it's the third part in a trilogy about Bell's experience becoming a farmer in Suffolk in the 1920s. Bell wasn't raised to the work — he had a privileged urban upbringing and surprised his family when he announced after leaving school that he was going to go work on a farm. But he took to the work as if fated, and his three books about learning to farm and making his home in a small village offer a wonderful combination of period detail, entertaining stories, and beautfully understated nature writing. As a kid who grew up in an American farm family at a very different time and has acquired a deep love of the English countryside and the accompanying nature writing tradition, Bell's books couldn't be a better fit for me. For those coming newly to his work, I actually think reading them out of order is best: the middle volume, Silver Ley, is the most interesting and welcoming; once he's hooked you there, you can move on to Corduroy and The Cherry Tree.

What are you reading next?

Well, if Stephen King can sustain me until Tuesday — which, let's be honest, is doubtful with a long weekend coming — I'll turn with great anticipation to a book that's being published that day: Kudos, the final volume in the loose trilogy that English novelist Rachel Cusk began with Outline and Transit. I only started reading Cusk last year, and when I drew up a list of my twenty favorite writers on Twitter the other day, she easily took a space. All of Cusk's novels offer insight after insight into human behavior, often phrased with aphoristic precision. In this most recent group, however, she's taken a noticeable step forward — and what makes them stand out is that they're fundamentally novels about listening to other people tell their stories. There's an "I," about whom we do learn a fair amount, but her life is primarily there as the stage on which people around her talk about their lives, in a fashion that nears oral history at times. Yet it's oral history presented through a narrative perspective that quietly offers judgment — people damn themselves with their own solipsistic words, and Cusk, without being so ham-handed as to point it out, nonetheless makes sure we don't miss it, and in seeing it, find ourselves thinking about our own failings. "How often people betrayed themselves by what they noticed in others," her protagonist thinks in Transit. It's a line I've not been able to forget. I cannot wait to read this book.